War movies come in waves, or at least their popularity does. In one year, we got Saving Private Ryan and A Thin Red Line, and for many years after, several others tried to capture the brilliance of those pieces of art. Then people got tired, Hollywood started focusing on the controversial Iraq war and we watched as one decent story after the other failed to stick. Here's to the return of the war movie.
The trend may have started with the surprise hit Valkyrie at the tail end of 2008, but The Hurt Locker, which is now playing in theaters, has suddenly set the bar high for the award-envy films of the latter half of this year. Depicting a current, ongoing war is always tricky, as evidenced by the lackluster performances we've seen over the last few years. But if The Hurt Locker is any indication, we're going to see a massive resurgence in modern day war films - though they're going to have a tough time beating director Kathryn Bigelow's excellent rendition.
The Hurt Locker follows three soldiers (played by Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty) around Iraq as they have the pleasant duty of dismantling insurgent bombs. While Mackie and Geraghty's characters take their jobs - and lives - seriously, Renner's William James is a whole another story. A new addition to the team, James appears fearless yet reckless, his only saving grace being that he is damned good at his job. He seems addicted to life on the edge and is unaware or disinterested in the danger he brings to his colleagues.
The movie is extremely simple and yet incredibly engaging: Bigelow and writer Mark Boal basically take their characters from one dangerous situation to the next, piecing the scenes together with spot-on sequences that show them what they're like when they're off duty. The result is impressive: The Hurt Locker is one of the most intense films you'll see all year, and it's also a great character study of one man who cares so deeply for others that he's willing to put himself and his teammates on the line for anyone.
The action scenes are perfect. While in the back of your mind you know that Renner is the main character and as such he's not going to cut the wrong wire and blow himself up (at least too early on), every time he's squatted down next to a bomb - which is often - you'll be on the edge of your seat. Most of the scenes also involve snipers or other shooters, which just adds to the excitement. One of the best sequences, surprisingly, doesn't even involve a bomb: the team finds themselves out in the desert, trapped by a lone sniper in the distance. It's long, brutal and thrilling, though it's not a guns blazing type of ordeal. This describes much of the movie quite well.
But The Hurt Locker is so much more than an action film. Bigelow rarely dramatizes things; the characters feel real and the situations utterly believable. She takes you into a world that most of us only see on the news, and, for the first time, captures what I can only presume is a more realistic, fluid snapshot of life as a soldier in Iraq. The movie is about detonating bombs, but it is also about the effects such situations take on soldiers. One of the final scenes of the movie, where Renner stands in a grocery store aisle pondering which cereal box to grab, exemplifies the contrast between what we go through here and what soldiers go through over there.
Every actor involves turns in a strong performance, including cameos by Guy Pearce, Ralph Fiennes and David Morse. Interestingly, with those big names involved, it's three relatively unrecognizable guys who lead the way and show that they are more than up to the task.
The Hurt Locker didn't stun me the way Saving Private Ryan did, but it comes close. This is the first 21st century war movie that is a must-see, and is easily the best movie of 2009 so far.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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